Zelensky: Anatomy of a success

The political situation in Ukraine since the ‘revolution of dignity’ and subsequent Russian aggression has created a specific social context in which the public’s perception of traditional politicians has started to deteriorate dramatically. The revolution awakened high public expectations of comprehensive reforms to the state, a new quality of governance, and the empowerment of society. However, 2014’s presidential and parliamentary elections led to only a minor turnover of the political elites, and the most important positions in the state were taken by politicians whose positions and ideas were formed in the 1990s when the oligarchic system in Ukraine was created. The reforms during the first two to three years after the revolution, which were mainly implemented under pressure from Western donors and civil society, failed to meet the public’s needs. Not only did they not lead to an improved quality of life, but they actually led to a decline and the emigration of around two million people. Painful reforms, initiated but unfinished, and increasing political instability exacerbated the public’s already critical attitudes towards the political class. Just before the presidential elections, only 23 per cent of respondents expressed trust in the president, 12 per cent in parliament, 19 per cent in the government, 12 per cent in the courts, and 15 per cent in the prosecutor’s office.

The huge distrust of state institutions and politicians resulted in a search for ‘new faces’, people from outside the establishment who were not disgraced, who were untainted by corruption and could meet the public’s diverse expectations. In the initial stage of the campaign, the Ukrainian people had a choice between two such people: Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, the leader of the popular rock band Okean Elzy, and Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian and actor. However, the former’s reluctance to announce his candidacy increased support for the latter, which only accelerated after Zelensky’s formal announcement at the turn of 2019 that he would run in the elections. In this way Zelensky become a major contender in the presidential race, and won the first round of elections.

Image and campaign

The most important source of Zelensky’s success is his name recognition and popularity. Unlike most other potential ‘new faces’, for whom a media campaign would have been long and costly, Zelensky already enjoyed the favour of a significant proportion of Ukrainian voters when he announced he would run. He owes his popularity to performances in films, serials and satirical programmes. In addition, he has positive associations from TV productions like the Kvartal-95 cabaret show (which has been running since 2005) and the series Servant of the People (since 2015). He has played the lead in both shows, both of which refer to politics. The first ridicules the political situation, the ruling class and the reforms they implement, while the second showcases an alternate reality. Zelensky plays the role of a modest history teacher who, by a twist of fate, becomes president of Ukraine and effectively fights oligarchs and corrupt politicians in the defence of ordinary people’s interests. The show’s huge popularity (the biggest success in the history of Ukrainian TV production) has not only increased Zelensky’s visibility but also habituated his audience to the lead character’s political role. The third season of Servant of the People began in the week before the first round of the presidential elections.

It is not only Zelensky’s lack of political experience which works in his favour, but also his lack of coherent political views. Zelensky does not have to make any electoral promises, as he is commonly identified with the hero of his TV series. The illusion of a modest president who serves society and fights the pathologies of political and economic life, while at the same time approving the status quo without demanding any sacrifices associated with the reforms, has proved to be much more attractive than the image built up by the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, of the defender of the poor against the oligarchs; or that of the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, of the defender of the nation against the Russian threat.

Zelensky’s announcement that he would run in the elections, which took the form of a short film combined with his New Year’s greetings, kicked off his unusual campaign. He has mainly used social networks, interacting directly with voters during his cabaret concerts, using short video clips, polls and surveys, and commenting directly on political events. This approach has reinforced his image as a candidate from outside the system.

Zelensky’s spontaneity contrasts with the trite quality of the campaigns run by Poroshenko, Tymoshenko and the pro-Russian candidate Yuri Boyko, which are based on geeky speeches, promises, and visits to cities and workplaces. Moreover, the actor has run a distinctly positive campaign: lacking a concrete manifesto, he has invited his followers to join in writing one, a move which has turned normal electoral logic on its head by giving his voters a feeling of empowerment. He has offered them a form of joint action, instead of promises to act on their behalf. This approach binds him to his voters, giving the illusion of a horizontal relationship, of reducing the distance between the people and power.

Target group

Zelensky’s campaign has allowed him to reach out effectively to different social groups. The most important of these are the young and the middle-aged, who – regardless of their differing political views – share a disaffection with the ossified ranks of Ukraine’s current politicians. Although a large portion of these voters would have been willing to support Svyatoslav Vakarchuk in the elections, after he chose not to run, they preferred to switch their votes to Zelensky, young and unblemished by politics, rather than the compromised figures of Poroshenko or Tymoshenko.

Zelensky has also managed to reach a group of more conservative voters who are tired of political instability, and who see the source of this chaos in the failed attempts to reform over recent years. During Zelensky’s election campaign he did not promise to make any further fundamental changes, and limited his rhetoric to empty populist slogans about the need to fight corruption and raise living standards. In terms of foreign policy, he has used plenty of uncontroversial slogans about the need for Ukraine to join Euro-Atlantic structures, and has called Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas annexation and aggression. He has spoken about the development of the state and reforms in such a threadbare and general manner that he has managed to attract both people who want to halt the reforms, and those who want to accelerate them and hope that a man from outside the establishment will break up the old system. The invitations to well-known reformers like the Lithuanian economist Aivaras Abromavičius and Ukraine’s former finance minister Oleksandr Danyluk to join his campaign team were a signal to the latter group.

Last but not least, Zelensky has won the trust of those voters who see the actions of the president and the government in the cultural and symbolic sphere as a threat to their identity. This is because for many people, the actor embodies a different model of patriotism than the one promoted by the current government, which is based on the Ukrainisation of the public sphere and anti-Russian rhetoric. Despite the increase of patriotic and anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine, there is still a group in society which does not agree with the state’s historical policy. These are people attached to Russian culture and language, and who often (like Zelensky himself) use it as their primary vehicle of expression, regardless of the war with Russia in the Donbas and the annexation of Crimea. This group – who are still quite large in Ukraine, and live mostly in the east and south of the country (where the actor himself comes from) – feels no less patriotic than their fellow citizens from other regions who speak Ukrainian and are more Western-oriented. However, due to the policies of Ukrainisation and de-Communisation in public life, and the general rightward shift in Ukrainian politics, some of them feel marginalised at best, or even stigmatised as a kind of Russian fifth column. Zelensky, as a popular, successful man who appeals to Soviet-Russian symbols, not only legitimises their views and values, but has de facto become their spokesman and protector.

The first round of the elections showed that a positive campaign which promotes unity, not division, brought Zelensky his success (he won 19 of the country’s 24 regions). If Poroshenko’s staff cannot move beyond the current logic of their campaign, and if no credible material seriously compromising Zelensky’s integrity and/or morality emerges, society’s anger towards the old political elite may overcome its fear of entrusting the highest office in the country to a comedian with no political experience.

This is an edited version of an article first published at the Centre for Eastern Studies and is reproduced here with permission. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.